Chemist wins injunction against university trying to revoke her degree

A scientist has won an injunction against the University of Texas at Austin, which was deciding whether or not to revoke her PhD.

We’ve been covering the case of Suvi Orr, a chemist now based at Pfizer who earned a PhD in 2008, for a few years. During that time, UT has tried to revoke her degree twice, after the paper that made up part of her dissertation was retracted in 2012 — for allegedly containing falsified data, according to the school. The university revoked her degree in 2014, then reinstated it after she sued.

Last year, the school tried to revoke it again, prompting Orr to sue for a second time — and ask for more than $95,000 in legal fees and expenses.

In a decision released April 20, a Texas Court of Appeals has upheld Orr’s request for an injunction against UT, preventing it from deciding whether to revoke her degree. Specifically, Orr asked that UT not be allowed to make a decision until the court has weighed in on a separate appeal, in which Orr argues the university doesn’t have the right to revoke her degree.

According to her lawyer, David Sergi:

This is great news for [Orr] and all Graduate Students who are the victims of unscrupulous advisers who try to blame their mistakes on their students.

Sergi said the latest decision tells UT that it has to follow proper procedures when making such impactful decisions:

Universities have to provide due process, and adequate due process. It’s all about procedural fairness, and what are we teaching our university-aged kids? Is that if you don’t like something, you can provide inadequate due process and cause that person or that organization great harm? Or do you follow the rules that this country is based on?

We contacted UT to ask if they had any plans to appeal the decision. They returned this statement:

UT respects our students’ privacy and, as a policy, will not publicly discuss an individual student’s academic performance or issues related to it.  We will respond to this lawsuit through the appropriate legal channels.

According to Sergi, the injunction is permanent “until further court order.”

Specifically, according to a memorandum from the court, the court has ruled UT cannot make a decision about Orr’s degree until the court has ruled on her appeal:

It is the order of this Court that, pending disposition of the appeal in cause number 03-16-00726-CV or further order of this Court, the University officials and any persons or entities acting in connection therewith are enjoined from conducting any proceeding for the purpose of deciding whether to revoke or otherwise take action with regard to S.O.’s Ph.D. degree conferred by the University in 2008.

Sergi explained to us that the appeal — which will be decided by the same court that issued the injunction — argues that the university can’t decide on its own to revoke degrees. According to Sergi, to take away Orr’s PhD, UT would have to file a lawsuit against her.

He added that the decision on whether or not to compensate Orr for her legal fees and expenses — which he now estimates at around $150,000 to $160,000 — will be made at the end of the case:

The university has caused us to expend a fair bit of money.

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9 thoughts on “Chemist wins injunction against university trying to revoke her degree”

  1. Excellent news
    ” This is great news for [Orr] and all Graduate Students who are the victims of unscrupulous advisers who try to blame their mistakes on their students”

    1. I know nothing about this case, but in general, considering that a PhD is granted for original contributions to knowledge, I am not sure that blaming an advisor for errors is the best way to establish one’s entitlement to the degree.

  2. This is a really strange case. Usually even in cases of very clear fraud universities are not this persistent in trying to get the degree revoked.

  3. The fact that UT Austin is trying to revoke her Ph.D. degree is a stain on her reputation. Employers might consider as damaged goods. Of course candidates wanting to obtain a Ph.D. would avoid UT Austin.

  4. At some point, Ph.D. students must transition from being potential victims of unscrupulous advisers to mature scientists who publish quality work or suffer the consequences. This usually happens right around the time the thesis is written. These delaying tactics do not reverse the retraction or make the science any more valid.

  5. This is not only a matter of PhD vs supervisor, but also the research culture in a department/department. This calls for an independent evaluation.

    Secondly, one should not agree with the lawyer Sergi “… to take away Orr’s PhD, UT would have to file a lawsuit against her.” It’s the university who confers the degree, and should take it back.

    However, in the latter case, the university should have a clear policy. But what happens, when the department/university unconsciously encourages fraud?

  6. I too cheered this development, even though I have no idea whether Orr is scammer or scapegoat. Institutions may have substantial conflicts of interest when investigating their own senior researchers.

    Senior researchers accused of misconduct get off much more frequently than early career researchers. Why?
    Misconduct findings often result from internal institutional investigations, rather than some external, disinterested 3rd party inquiry.  Senior researchers may have complex funding webs with other researchers in the institution, have co-authored publications, shared lab/facility and personnel resources, sit on multiple student committees, and may have long personal relations with those judging them. Finally, a full professor by definition has been repeatedly endorsed by colleagues and administration. A finding of misconduct against such a researcher could unravel these networks. This could shake the institution deeply, reflect poorly on the institutional administrators, and adversely affect the lives of many. If senior scientist were found not guilty, all this unpleasantness could be avoided.
    Perhaps the blame should be pinned on a disposable junior researcher such as a post-docs or a student, all that unfortunate fallout could be avoided. A pious announcement may be made that the process worked as it should, and rooted out a bad apple.

    Certainly students and early career scientists can be dodgy, especially if pressures and stakes for success are high. Institutions may only be concerned with upholding their standards of conduct. Still, internal investigation processes can seem questionable. In the Suvi Orr affair, she had a very public falling out with a senior researcher after non-reproducible organic chemical syntheses led to a retracted paper. Earlier RW coverage said that the university concluded she had falsified data. Orr in turn complained that she was not allowed a chance to rebut her accusers, access the investigatory materials, and that she should be judged by disinterested, qualified peers,  rather than through an informal disciplinary board consisting of three undergraduate students and two faculty members . Perhaps Suvi Orr indeed cut corners and got caught, but it also seems possible that she might be a reproducibility scapegoat. If a senior researcher felt besmirched by a retraction and felt the need to place blame elsewhere, a former student living far away with few current ties to the institution might be an easy mark.

    The point is, if institutions may have intractable conflicts of interests with high-status scientists. A disinterested 3rd party investigation would seem fairer to all.

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